During the height of the rhythm genre’s popularity, rock-oriented games ruled the market and made little room for other genres. With the music game’s heyday come and pass, classical music fans may never receive their Beethoven Hero, but a rhythm game built around orchestral music finally has its time to shine. And what better series to pick from then one 13 games deep (14 if you count the abysmal MMO that isn’t FFXI) and known for its beautiful scores, Final Fantasy? Square Enix has done just that with the awfully titled and awkward to pronounce Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy (feel free to take a moment to nail it down), which combines some of the franchise’s most recognizable and enduring musical numbers with smart and enjoyable rhythm mechanics.
The set-up for Theatrhythm (you’ll get used to it, I promise) is simple and entirely inconsequential. Heroes from throughout the franchise’s timeline must come together and harness the power of music and the game’s “rhythmia” to rid the world of evil. Instead of caring about the story, you’ll want to focus all of your attention on the vast wealth of content included in the handheld offering, which will have you playing long after you’ve saved the world.
What the story does translate into, however, is the game’s party system. From the outset, you’ll create a group, much like in a traditional Final Fantasy game, of four members who will level up with experience earned in every song. The playable characters (originally, 13 options are available – an iconic protagonist from each entry – but more characters can be unlocked) have upgradeable skills and different abilities that will aid them in the various challenges ahead.
The game’s rhythm mechanics are actually divided into three categories. Players will have to tap along to notes, swipe in a certain direction, or hold the stylus on the touchscreen for a certain duration in time to the music. Thanks to the three types of songs, these simple tasks feel fresh each time, preventing fatigue from setting in too quickly. Each game has a Battle Music Stage (BMS), a Field Music Stage (FMS) and an Event Music Stage (EMS).
A BMS will have all four of your party members on screen at once, each with their own lane for beats to travel down to the tune of classic fighting music. By completing the cues in time to the music, characters will do damage to opponents, who are cuter versions of the monsters from each title designed to match the chibi-like art style of the characters.
In each FMS, the leader of a player’s group will be taking a stroll through a locale reminiscent of each game’s more common areas. If you keep time with the beats the character progresses further and may encounter moogles and other characters who will reward them with items. Only one note path is present, however, and hold commands require players to drag the stylus in the proper direction.
For EMS offerings, a key moment or montage of several scenes from a particular Final Fantasy will play as the note path moves in any of several directions, often following along certain shapes and taking full advantage of the upper screen’s larger real estate.
When playing through a certain game’s full setlist, players can also tap in time to the beat of the opening and closing themes of each numbered offering for extra rhythmia, but these are just quick bonuses that can be skipped and are fairly easy.
Each of the three main gameplay types are entertaining in their own way, though I found myself gravitating toward the BMS songs the most. While I enjoyed some of the EMS offerings, these pieces were often slower, which may make for good music but does not translate well into exciting gameplay. The pace of the BMS songs keeps players on their toes and even the FMS choices maintain a dynamic pace thanks to the alteration to the hold command.
For the most part, regardless of tempo, the music choices represent some of the most memorable pieces in not only the franchise but in most of gaming. Even still, with such attention paid to song selection, I would have liked for more of the EMS choices to have been about gameplay and less about the nostalgic factor.